Learn Physics or Get Bored Trying

The Darker Side of Science

I wrote this article a few months back; at least two people read it.  Since it was one of the motivations that kicked this off, I figured I’d pea-roast it here.  Note: It’s possible I was feeling a little tetchy at the time—a certain Director General of the BBC had recently published a plan to take my toys away.


Science. I’m all for it. Without science, we may not today have discovered mp3 players, DVDs, or even the humble laser pointer with which to annoy cats.

But there is a darker side to science. Einstein; Oppenheimer; Feynman: had they known the consequences of their thirst for knowledge, would they have continued in their atom-splitting ways?

I am, of course, referring to the terrible blight that our society now lives with: background visual accompaniments to Horizon “science” documentaries. Being somewhat of the geek persuasion, and therefore having nothing better to do of a Friday evening (once I was sure that Lost was recording to irritate me another night), I sat back and queued up this week’s Horizon: “Is Everything We Know About The Universe Wrong?” (to which the answer is, of course, “no, I know for a fact that Mark Thompson is a <censored>”).

First of all, can we please stop accompanying every mention of the word “maths” or “calculated” with close-up footage of people scribbling pseudo-equations on black/whiteboards? Or at least get enough different shots so that a child—or even an arts graduate—can’t see the same scribble being used to represent cosmic expansion, particle energies and the narrator’s tax return?

Into the content itself, and we start out with some background about The Big Bang. And with every mention of The Big Bang, we see a fresh shot of the bulk of the programme’s budget literally going up in smoke via the joy of slow motion pyrotechnics. Of course, the budget only stretches to 20 or so actually unique explosions, so they cycle them such that none gets used more than, say, 4 or 5 times throughout the programme.

But wait! Someone’s spotted a problem with The Big Bang (pop) theory! It simply cannot explain what happened for the first few thousand millennia or so. What’s needed here are some reverse slow motion explosions. And since we have to throw out some of our calculations, how about close up shots of people literally erasing pseudo-equations with their felt pens!

So what are our scientists to do? What if there simply isn’t an explanation for the shortcomings of The Big Bang (pop) that lends itself to a palatable visual aid? Turns out we’re OK. Some physics dude came up with a model of the time immediately following The Big Bang (pop) called “Inflation”. Cue physics dude standing in a warehouse next to a giant flacid red balloon, itself attached to a gas pipe (I don’t blame it). Gas tap is turned, balloon… wait for it… inflates. Oh yes.

And of course they have several such balloons, many camera angles and a whole plethora of camera speeds to demonstrate how pretty pretty a slow-motion balloon is, just in case you get distracted by the science. And it turns out that some calculations (scribble) led to a graph (brief shot of bendy line) that some observations of background radiation between The Big Bang (pop) and the end of inflation (balloon) matched up with on at least 4 points on the bendy line (may have been more than 4, but the person drawing the dots on the bendy line only had so much time to do it in before the science got too scary). Though no-one yet knows why Inflation (balloon) stopped (still shot of balloon) before the Universe expanded too far (balloon being over-inflated and bursting in another demonstration of how slow motion balloons make it all safe).

But now we hear that something’s wrong with gravity (ooh—magnetic ball bearings on a wooden board; that’s new). Galaxies just aren’t the shape they’re supposed to be. I know this, because I saw a close-up of someone chalking a swirly line onto a blackboard. With science again stumped, the programme moved on to pondering whether it can all be fixed using Dark Matter, which is, like, invisible (ARGH! CAN’T SHOW INVISIBLE! RUN THE BALLOON!).

I must confess, I have no idea what happened after that; I turned the damn thing off and started writing this.

But all is not hopeless. The shambles that was Horizon brought back to mind the excellent Wonders of the Solar System, running on Beeb 2 Sundays (repeated Thursdays, available on iPlayer), presented by the altogether lovely Professor Brian Cox: D:Ream keyboardist, regular 6 Music Breakfast Show guest, and occasional member of the ATLAS project at the LHC (*. This is what science documentaries should measure up to.

OK, in places the first episode strayed towards travelogue, as we see locals bathing in the Gangees at Varanasi, where Cox was waiting to witness a perfect total solar eclipse (lucky git!). But even in these scenes, we see him occasionally blu-tacking space-probe images of solar eclipses from other planets onto a red stone wall, while tourists wander past doing…well…touristy things. And all the while, he has the smile on his face that you will only ever see from someone who absolutely, bloody loves what (s)he gets to do for a living.

And OK, the programme occasionally falls into the ubiquitous trap of near any reality-based programme whereby we need to see what’s going to happen later, followed by something happening, followed by what just happened. But honestly, it was less guilty of that than most.

But overall, where it did cut to visual aid, it didn’t go half-measures. “This is sunset on Mars, as seen by the robotic rover, Spirit”. And not a balloon in sight. We even get to the bit where he has to do a bunch of sums to figure out the total power output by the sun. “That’s four, times pi, times…”. The sound fades, we get some desert shots, and not a single scribble! Back to Cox: “It’s four hundred, million, million, million, million watts. That is a million times the power consumption of the United States every year, radiated in one second. And we worked that out by using some water, a thermometer, a tin and an umbrella. And that’s why I love physics.”

And I dare you not to.

* It turns out he was also science-advisor for the Danny Boyle film Sunshine. Which I didn’t know when I tweeted about watching that after Wonders in a message that may have come across as, well, twattish. D’oh!


June 14, 2010 - Posted by | Science in the media | , , ,

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